Tweaker Houses

States create online registries to help the public identify methamphetamine labs and users.

by / January 29, 2007 0
In their ongoing battle against the methamphetamine (meth) plague, state governments use all the technology tools at their disposal to track trends and educate the public about meth's impact.

Tennessee and Minnesota, much like they do with sex offenders, created online registries of names of meth offenders. States also struggle to cope with the toxins left behind when meth labs are busted.

Bad Labs
In 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 12,000 domestic meth labs. The residue of the dangerous substances used in the labs could expose families moving into those homes and apartments to long-term health hazards. Complicating matters for states is the fact that there are no official federal regulations on how to clean up a former meth lab.

Some states -- including Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana -- created online registries of meth lab sites to give real estate agents, neighbors and potential homebuyers a centralized place to check on dangerous properties.

Oregon has aggressively addressed meth-related issues, but state officials realize much remains to be done. Although Oregon estimates it shut down about 75 percent of meth labs in the state, the drug killed as many Oregonians as heroin in 2005 -- and more people than cocaine.

The state has begun adding meth lab properties to an online database organized by county.

"These properties have not been cleaned up," stressed Brett Sherry, an environmental health specialist at the Drug Lab Cleanup Program for the state's Department of Human Services. "The goal is to inform the public that these properties are unfit for habitation. If anyone is caught there, they can be arrested for trespassing. So prospective homebuyers, housing code officials, public utility people, the fire department -- anyone with any reason to go to that property -- this listing tells them don't go."

Once a property is cleaned up and inspected by an authorized agent, it gets a certificate of fitness and is removed from the list. Even after a property receives certification, however, a seller must disclose that the property had been used for drug manufacture and cleaned up, Sherry said. There's clear language that a sale is void if this hasn't been disclosed.

Recent state legislation also requires Sherry's office to inform neighbors when a meth lab in their vicinity is busted. "When neighbors see cops arriving in moon suits," he said, "they often don't get the answers they need right away about what is going on."

Anyone living within 300 feet of a meth lab in urban areas, and within a quarter mile in rural settings, is supposed to be notified. Notifying neighbors presented another technical challenge to the three-person staff of the Drug Lab Cleanup Program: How to find all those mailing addresses?

The office initially purchased a subscription to a database of property listings from RealQuest, a property information database. Then in mid-2006, Sherry and his staff found a free tool offered through the Oregon State Library that gathers county assessor data and lets a user mark all the addresses within a certain radius of a property.

Sherry said the notification program has led to people keeping an eye on the abandoned properties and reporting on any activity there. "The more eyes and ears," he said, "the better."

In comparison to other states, Idaho has a fairly small meth lab problem, with only 21 incidents in 2005, according to the DEA. But the state Legislature was determined to address the problem before it worsened. Since the Legislature mandated the creation of an online registry in spring 2006, Idaho's Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program has added only seven properties, but the extensive informational Web site prompts many calls from the public, said Jim Faust, director of the program.

"People might smell something in a hotel room, or a real estate [agent] might find it and want to know what rules to follow," he said.

The state has created guidelines to follow when a meth lab is found in a house or an apartment to make sure the property owners understand and follow the state's cleanup standards.

Registries of Individuals
In Tennessee, the governor's 2005 Meth-Free Tennessee Act directed the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to keep a registry of meth-contaminated properties. When a Tennessee law enforcement agency quarantines a property, in addition to informing the DEC for listing online, a quarantine notice is added to the chain of title with the Register of Deeds, thus creating a permanent record.

When the property is cleaned, the owner can record that information with the Register of Deeds. Both notifications become part of the property's permanent record to help inform potential buyers or renters.

Tennessee went one step further, creating a registry of individuals convicted of meth offenses. After legislation was passed in spring 2005, Tennessee became the first state with such a registry in September 2005. There are now 541 people on the list, and as of July 2006, the Web site has been accessed half a million times.

State officials say the registry is not meant to be a deterrent.

"It was designed as an informational tool for the people of Tennessee," said Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). "Landlords were renting to people with no idea of who these people were. With the recidivism rate really high among these offenders, there was a public outcry that something be done."

In addition, someone making meth could be transporting or dumping hazardous chemicals, Johnson said.

Offenders can appeal to have their name removed from the list after seven years if they haven't been convicted again in that time.

The TBI Web site also features a tool called the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System, which lets citizens create their own crime reports about meth labs and meth-related offenses by whatever variables they'd like to track, such as drug quantity, type of location, region or time of day.

Using Data to Track Trends
In Michigan, which had 341 meth lab incidents in 2005, the state is attempting to gather more data and trying to do a better job of analyzing it. The Michigan State Methamphetamine Task Force's May 2006 report calls for a stronger data collection and reporting system for tracking meth use and related problems.

A task force subcommittee on prevention argued for establishing a central database to continually collect, assess, monitor and report on meth indicators.

"When we went looking for data, we could only find treatment and meth lab data, but use data is difficult to find," said Kori White-Bissot, a prevention coordinator with Lakeshore Coordinating Council in Grand Haven, Mich., who served as chair of the prevention subcommittee.

The state needs data about use rates among the adult population and it needs to share that data systemwide, she added. Michigan meth lab busts are down 50 percent in the last year, but state officials realize they still have a problem with use. "As you see that lab number go down, you might think the problem is going away, but we know it's not," said White-Bissot. "We need better ways to track usage."

Nancy Becker-Bennett, section manager of the Michigan Methamphetamine Task Force, said the state plans to adopt the recommendations about data gathering. She said that by creating a more comprehensive picture of the meth problem, the state could do a better job of tracking trends, prioritizing spending and allocating its resources regionally.

By establishing baseline data on the extent of the meth problem, including data such as child abuse and neglect due to parents' or guardians' meth use, the state will be taking steps toward increasing public awareness, enhancing treatment options, and creating an early warning system for communities to recognize an emerging meth problem.
David Raths contributing writer